“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

Wikipedia, Egypt and the mystery of the Stoke Poges Naked Bicycle Angel

Egypt? It’s near Stoke Poges, a delightful village near Burnham Beeches and a lovely little cycle from London.

It was well worth the pilgrimage too, not only for the beautiful woodland or for the wonderfully displaced North African country, but also for a certain stained glass window in Stoke Poges church. I learnt of this window from Wikipedia when I was researching a talk I gave last year on the history of the bicycle. Apparently, there was a window of an angel, stark naked, riding a bicycle.

So I pedalled to the church, wheeled my respectful way down the winding path through the cemetery, leant my bike up against the porch and, full of anticipation, pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Now, I was expecting to see a huge window with a glorious winged angel dazzling the congregation with his dangling member straddling a Raleigh six-speed. So it was with increasing frustration that I circled the small church two, three times, without seeing anything remotely resembling an angel of heaven on a bike.

Then I found this:

Bicycle window, Stoke Poges
Bicycle window, Stoke Poges (Peter Reed, Flickr)

This is a small inset picture in a window installed to celebrate the lives lost in World War II. And it’s not so much an angel as a cherub, I’d say. Far from being glorious, it seems a little inappropriate. I’d like to know the thought process behind this one.

We want something nice to remember the 450,000 souls who died in the most horrific war in human history…

I know – a cherub on a hobby-horse blowing a trumpet!

Whatever the thinking behind it was, one thing is certain: Wikipedia is wrong.

What?

This is what Wikipedia originally told me about the window:

There are several early but unverifiable claims for the invention of bicycle-like machines. The earliest comes from an illustration found in a church window in Stoke Poges, installed in the 16th century, showing a naked angel on a bicycle-like device…*

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Second World War was a twentieth century event.

This is a valuable lesson I think.
1. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes you do know better.
2. Check the facts for yourself. Go there. Verify the angel.

It reminds me of the British in Palestine, 1917-1948. A lot of government policy was set in London by people who had never been to Palestine (which then comprised the current territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Their policy formation was based on idealistic dreams, unrealistic ambitions and sectarian politics. They often ignored the advice of the people on the ground in Palestine.

The administrators, soldiers and civilians in Palestine itself, faced with the day-to-day troubles, were practical and realistic in their suggestions. But they were ignored by people who thought they knew better – but who knew nothing.

I think this is one of the most important lessons of travel. How can I talk about Iran when I’ve never been there? Any talk that blew out of my mouth would be nothing more than so much hot air. How can I talk about a church window in Stoke Poges when I’ve never been there?

The more I travel, the more wary I become of talking about places I haven’t been – or of listening to other people who haven’t been either, no matter what their professional qualifications are. You can find the inaccurate angel-window story repeated endlessly across the internet, mindlessly regurgitated by people who’ve never been to Stoke Poges.

So I urge you: verify the angel!


* There are a couple of things here. Apparently the glass of the window was recycled (ho ho!) and a part of it has been dated to 1643. Which is the 17th century of course. The internet seems to be in some dispute about whether it is the bicycle part which is from 1643 or not. Either way, Wikipedia is wrong.

The information comes from Stoke Poges Parish Council website. The image is probably not a bicycle either and could be a “one-wheeled contraption that was often associated with cherubims and seraphims in mediaeval iconography” according to Jim Langley’s website.

How to Impress the Future

Things worth doing are remembered. Ergo, to do something worth doing, we’ve got to impress the future. We were the Age of Enlightenment’s future – and we’re impressed. Grudgingly.

Hate the Enlightenment #1

The most annoying thing about the ‘marvellous achievements’ of the Enlightenment is that everything they did was so obvious!

Wait – what are you saying? Apples fall from trees? Well, no shit, Sherlock! Call it what you like, Sir Isaac – I say gravity-schmavity.

Freedom, democracy, reason, capitalism, scientific method, religious tolerance – yawn! It’s all a bit, well, obvious, isn’t it? I could have come up with trigonometry. It doesn’t take a genius, does it?

But, I suppose, if you look at it from the point of view of an English peasant living on a bog, the Age of Enlightenment must have looked like one spell-bindingly incredible feat after another.

Idiots.

Hate the Enlightenment #2

The other reason to hate the Enlightenment is that they’ve done everything already!

  • Shakespeare has already written all the plays worth watching (particularly annoying for me).
  • Mozart has already come up with all the decent tunes.
  • Gallileo has done astronomy and Newton’s got physics sewn up.

It’s not that I’m jealous, but they had it so easy! (see Hate the Enlightenment #1)

The only things left for us to do are bloody impossible – like describing a complete theory of the universe or coming up with a rhyme for orange*.

Impress the Future

But that’s the way it works – remember?

If I keep thinking like an English peasant living on a bog, everything new is always going to feel impossible.

Why is it that, if we look back in time, the achievements of the Enlightenment look inevitable; but when we peer into the future, everything new suddenly looks impossible?

If only we could look into our future from the perspective of a still more distant future, so that it looks easy, obvious – and amazing.

What of our generation’s achievements will our ancestors look back at in two hundred years and be jealous of?

We can never know for sure, but we’ll never impress them if we stay stuck in our own mental bogs.


* sporange?

Secular Jews, Religious Jews and Arabs: The Zero-Sum Game of Israeli Multiculturalism

This is a review of a talk given by Professor Menachem Mautner, a political and legal theorist from Tel Aviv University, on the 1st of February 2010 at Oriel College, Oxford. Again, apologies for the lateness!

I would like to make quite clear at the beginning of this review that Professor Mautner discusses Israel exclusively. He does not refer to the problems between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His concern is the problems facing Israeli society.

Israel’s Multicultural Society

Since the 1970s and the end of Labour’s hegemony in Israeli politics, Israel has been a multicultural society. But there is a war of cultures going on, the society is divided in two ways.

The War of Cultures 1: Secular Jews vs Religious Jews

Secular Jews, by which Professor Mautner meant “liberal western” Jews and religious Jews, by which he meant “traditional, Judaism” Jews have twice come close to civil war.

  1. First when settlers were withdrawn from Gaza and Northern Samaria. There was a lot of opposition to this move: 20,000 police and soldiers faced off against the settlers.
  2. Secondly, during the al-Aqsa intifada riots, in the face of retaliation by the Arabs.

The Jewish enlightenment of mid-19th century Germany marks the beginning of the opposition between the secular and the religious Jews. From the 1930s to the 1970s secular Jews, represented by the Labour movement, were in political hegemony. Their values were secular, democratic, modern and western.

By the end of the 1970s their power had waned and in 1977 there was a political turnabout in Israel and Labour lost control. Since 1977, there has only been 6 years that Labour were in hegemony. In the 1980s Labour institutions lost power and they have never properly recovered.

The War of Cultures 2: Jews vs Arabs

20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. By 2020 it will be 23%. Israel is clearly bi-national, but Jews deny it. The 1992 constitutional laws describe Israel as Jewish and democratic only. Arabs are allowed rights as individuals, but not collectively.

  • Arabs are excluded from significant political decisions on foreign policy and defence.
  • Israel doesn’t recognise any Arab holidays as public holidays.
  • There are separate cities, neighbourhoods, institutions, newspapers, schools etc. for Arabs in Israel.
  • In all indices – literacy, development, life expectancy, etc. – Arabs rank significantly lower than Jews in Israel.

This is an explosive mixture, Professor Mautner says, that could lead to a violent struggle.

But solutions are on the table. In 2006/07, Arab-Israeli intellectuals produced a policy paper, ‘Arab Vision,’ outlining a bi-national state like Switzerland, Belgium or Canada.

A Zero-Sum Game

But there is a connection between the two divides: it is a zero-sum game.

  • If the secular Jews move towards the traditional Jews, the Arabs suffer.
  • If the secular Jews move towards the Arabs, the traditional Jews will revolt.

And this situation will only get worse. The demographics are changing: 50% of school children are from either ultra-orthodox or Arab groups. Israeli society is becoming more polarised between the two groups at the extremes.

There is nothing unique in the Israeli multiculturalism. What is unique is that the pressure on the system comes from the centre, not the fringes. The problems faced by Israeli society are more like those faced by Turkey, Egypt or Algeria, not Canada or Belgium.

Although secular and liberal, the government funds ultra-orthodox groups who oppose these values. As a comparison, the Bob Jones University in the USA was stripped of its tax-free status by the Supreme Court because of their racist admissions policy. Israel will never do something like this, Professor Mautner says: it would cause a revolt by the religious Jews.

The Outlook

There are essentially two types of religious Jew in Israel: the ultra-orthodox Jews and the religious Zionists.

  • Ultra-orthodox Jews reject Western values and ideas including democracy and liberalism. They would support a theocracy which excludes women entirely.
  • Religious Zionists, on the other hand, take their ideas from the West as well as from tradition. They go to universities, the theatre and opera. They are democratic and have a religious feminism. They would object to a theocracy and would support liberal politics. They hold the key to the future character of Israel – but which way will they go?

Individualism represents a real danger for the multicultural state. It could polarise opinion and the common good will suffer. Professor Mautner proposes that republicanism could prevent this, if all citizens are able to deliberate over the common good with no exclusion. Labour republicanism has been strong, but it excludes the Arabs. Now it is weak and they can’t cultivate a shared idea of the common good.

Israel needs to actively pursue a Rawlsian liberal regime representing pluralism and tolerance, an inclusive liberalism, not a universal liberalism.

Specific Measures for the Future:

It contrast to some of the theorists I’ve heard speak, Professor Mautner outlined seven specific proposals to bind Israeli society closer together and to make the country a safer and more democratic state for all its citizens.

1. Establish a constitutional court

The constitutional law is currently developed by the Supreme Court, but this is now viewed as biased. A new constitutional court would be staffed by lawyers representing the major cultural groups so that it is no longer divisive.

2. Reshuffle the education system

Currently there are five types of schooling, secular, religious zionist, Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. They rarely intermix. Israel needs mixed schools, some already exist, but it needs more.

3. Change the 1992 laws about the nature of Israel

It is a nation for all Israelis, not just Jews. Israel should become a “Jewish, democratic and Israeli state.”

4. Include Arabs in national symbols

Including the flag and the national anthem.

5. Include Arabic as a national language

On a level with Hebrew.

6. Acknowledge the implications of multiculturalism

Respect for a people means a respect for their culture. Most Arabs are versed in Jewish culture, but not the other way around.

7. Use the example of 10th and 11th century Spain

Where the Jews enjoyed a golden age under Arab leaders.


It was a blessed relief to hear someone put forward concrete, rational proposals for the better integration of Arabs into Israeli society. It’s going to be a long and hard road to travel – overturning institutionalised racism, such as that outlined by Professor Mautner, does not happen overnight – but it will be worth it, for all concerned.

The Making of Modern English Anti-Semitism

This is a review of a talk given by Dr Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, at Oriel College, Oxford University on Monday 1st March 2010. Apologies for the lateness – it’s been lying dormant in my notebook for almost a year now!

This talk was given as a warning. Dr Julius was keen to point out rising anti-Semitism in left-wing universities. This talk was given at the beginning of “Israel Apartheid Week,” in which many British universities, including Oxford, took part. Students and their professors are dangerous because, presumably, they are intelligent and their words and opinions carry great weight. This new rise in anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, has developed with the recent rise in anti-Zionism, particularly after the invasion of Gaza in 2008.

The Four Types of English Anti-Semitism

Dr Julius referred to the “amnesia of Anglo-Jews,” they have forgotten the long history of anti-Semitism in this country. There are four types of anti-Semitism to be found in English history.

1. Medieval anti-Semitism

Medieval anti-Semitism reached its zenith (or nadir?) in England in 1290, when King Edward I ordered the total expulsion of the Jews from England. This expulsion was an utterly original English idea, lethal and exterminationist in conception. It was the first national expulsion of Jews and other European nations followed suit (France in 1394 and Spain in 1492, for example). However, Dr Julius does say, in “defence” of the English, that the idea had reached its moment and could have happened elsewhere.

2. English literary anti-Semitism

Dr Julius argues that only in England has literary anti-Semitism reached canonical status. He cites the examples of Chaucer (The Prioress’ Tale), Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice) and Dickens (Oliver Twist). The plot of each of these dramas, Dr Julius says, is basically the same. There is an innocent (usually a child), who is tricked by a conspiring Jew, there is usually murder or blood involved, but then a “miracle” saves the innocent and the Jew is punished.

Dr Julius argues that this English literary anti-Semitism continues to the modern day, with writers like Tom Paulin, most notably his poem Killed in Crossfire published in The Observer newspaper in 2001. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/feb/18/poetry.features1]

3. Quotidian or social anti-Semitism

This type of anti-Semitism flared up in England in the 17th century and limps on today. It takes the form of condescension toward and disregard for Jews. It is something one can live with, Dr Julius says, but is demoralising.

4. Anti-Zionism polluted with anti-Semitism

This developed in England from 1967 onwards. It is when opposition to the Zionist project of the Jews, i.e. the state of Israel, becomes tainted with anti-Semitic, i.e. racist, views. It can be secular, Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

The purpose of all this anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, is for its function. It is a useful tool, it gives an answer to any problem: just blame it on the Jews.

The Problem of the Holocaust

“The Holocaust has blinded us to modern anti-Semitism.”

The Deborah Lipstadt trial, in which the right-wing historian David Irving lost a libel case for denying the Holocaust, seemed to show that the threat to Jews still comes from neo-Nazi right. Dr Julius emphatically denies that this is so. The Holocaust, he says, has distracted us from the real threat – the left.

Dr Julius cites five reasons why the Holocaust has given us an entirely incorrect image of the average anti-Semite:

1. The Holocaust totalised anti-Semitism

The Holocaust defined antisemitism as wanting the elimination of all Jews. Today, however, anti-Semites recognise “good Jews” (those running Israel Apartheid Week, for example) and “bad Jews” (those who still who cling to the Zionist project).

2. The Holocaust was state-sponsored

This is not the case with anti-Semitism today – in the West, at least.

3. The Holocaust spoke German

Anti-Semitism became associated with a particular national source or paradigm. The Holocaust equated anti-Semitism with the Nazi genocidal type.

4. The threat came from the political right

This is not the case today; the threat is also from the left. Liberals find it hard to understand the national character of Judaism, which leads to anti-Semitism.

5. The Holocaust made us think anti-Semitism was genocidal

That is, thankfully, not the case with English anti-Semitism today.

Anti-Semitism in the UK today

Dr Julius sees 1967 as critical in the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the UK. The increase in Israeli settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories between 1967 and 1973 led to the famous / infamous 1975 UN Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. The 1982 Lebanon war did little to enhance international opinion of the Zionist project and concomitant with the rise in anti-Zionism, Dr Julius detects a rise in anti-Semitism.

This anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism gained strength after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the growth of radical Islam in the UK, empowered by the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall in the same year marked the final collapse of the socialist project and led to increased hatred of the US and Israel from the political left.

Dr Julius sees the response of the political left to Israeli actions in Gaza, particularly the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement of the trade unions, as “exorcising deep-rooted anti-Semitism.” He also warned that, if the Conservatives won the 2010 UK elections, then things could get worse, as Labour are pushed to the left, back to their traditional power base.

In the discourse of the political left, Dr Julius sees Jews portrayed as having a demonic quality. The boycott movement characterises Jews as Nazis, a characterisation that is familiar from medieval times, when Jews were called “pigs”.

But, believe it or not, Dr Julius is optimistic. He says that the dominant English norm is pro-difference, and against any divisive racism, such as anti-Semitism. He says that the empowerment of Muslims is very recent, only since 1989, whereas Jews have a history in the UK going back a millennium.

Conclusions

Dr Julius says that historiographical battles have to be fought. He cites the book Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh as important for undoing the “Nakba narrative” of the Palestinians. This book essentially blames the Arab elites for betraying the Palestinian people by refusing all negotiations with the Zionists.

Dr Julius believes that the boycott movement should be fought, in general politically, but where necessary using the unions’ own rule book to block racist policies.

Dr Julius also argues that Jewish anti-Zionists have got it wrong. Jewish anti-Zionists are a feature of contemporary Jewish politics. From the 1800s to 1945, Jews fell into one of three political camps:

  1. Assimilation: Jews should be individuals in individual states.
  2. Revolution: through socialism, Jews will find equality.
  3. Zionism: the Jews need their own state.

Dr Julius says that after the Holocaust there was “no politics” until 1967. Then the question became: what is Israel’s future? That is when Jewish anti-Zionists really came to the forefront of Israeli politics. But Dr Julius argues that their diagnoses and prognoses are wrong and because of that they are unwittingly colluding with the anti-Jewish project.

One of the proposed solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to reform Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories into one state, not as it is now, “a Jewish and democratic state”, but as simply “a democratic state”. Dr Julius describes this proposal as “rubbish”.


This was an interesting talk. I must confess that I don’t subscribe to his opinion that anti-Zionism goes hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism. Perhaps it is a generational thing. Anthony Julius was born in 1956, only 8 years after the birth of Israel. He was 12 in 1967, a very impressionable age.

I’m not saying that some anti-Zionists aren’t also anti-Semites. However, the state of Israel has been around long enough now for most people to be able to distinguish a Jew from an Israeli and, importantly, an Israeli from the state and government of Israel.

Sleep, Meditation and Dreaming

The Rise of Meditation in the West

Meditation in the West has seen a burst of popularity since the 1960s. An Australian survey in 2002 found that 11% of people in Western Australia have practised meditation at least once in their lives. A 2007 government study in the United States found that 9.4% of people there had practised meditation at some time.

The positive medical benefits for meditation have also recently been documented. The BBC (all hail!) have reported that meditation can reduce blood pressure and ease heart disease as well as actually changing the physical structure of the brain. Cool.

So why is meditation not more a part of Western life? Why is it still seen as an Eastern technique, most often associated with India? Could it be something to do with our sleeping patterns?

What?

Yes, our sleeping patterns. Specifically, our sleeping patterns since the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Light Bulb

In Britain (in the south, so the best case scenario) we spend over half our time without the sun. Roughly 51% of our hours are night. 250 years ago that meant almost total darkness.

Of course there were candles and we could light fires, but open fires were dangerous in our expanding wood-built towns and candles were expensive for most people. Gas lighting was still to be developed.

In the summer, we have about 8 hours of darkness, if we put sunset at about 9.00pm and sunrise at about 5.00am. In the winter, however, we have about 16 hours of darkness, with sunset around 4.00pm and sunrise at 8.00am.

If you can imagine this time 250 years ago, you would be in darkness from the mid-afternoon to the morning. What could you do? You couldn’t read or write, you couldn’t watch television, you couldn’t go outside for a walk to the pub. You couldn’t really do much at all (unless you were a thief) except go to bed or sit around in the dark and chat. For 16 hours a day.

Industrial Sleep

Since the industrial revolution and the explosion in light bulb usage, sleeping patterns in Britain have changed. Sleeping seven or eight hours a night all year round is the norm now – but it never used to be.

When the sun went down, it used to get dark. Now we have lights in our houses, on our streets, we like to relax in the evening with a film. And all this light has done something a little funny: we think it’s summer all year round.

Remember the 8 hours of darkness we get in summer? Isn’t that suspiciously similar to the hours most people sleep? You could call it the minimum that humans have evolved to live with; and that’s what we regulate ourselves to have by using electric lighting in the evenings.

As the chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler says:

“Every time we turn on a light we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep.”

Pre-Industrial Sleep

Without the miracles of electric lighting, our ancestors spent 51% of their lives in darkness. They couldn’t do much, but they could at least sleep properly.

In fact, there was so much time to kill, that people would have two sleeps: first sleep and second sleep. The first sleep might be from evening until after midnight and then second sleep from the early morning until sunrise – or when the farmer came a-knocking.

But what happened between first and second sleeps? Well, that’s where the meditation comes in. There wasn’t any reason to be fully awake (except to go to the toilet or have sex) so people drifted into this twilight zone of “meditation”. I put it in quotation marks because no one deliberately induced this state: it happened naturally.

First sleep was deep, restful sleep with a burst of dreaming before waking for the first time. Then it was followed by a period of quiet “meditation” before second sleep, which was characterised by more dreaming.

And that was natural.

Can We Still Do This?

Yes we can. Even today, if we are deprived of light for fourteen hours a day, we start to sleep in two shifts. Dr Thomas Wehr did an experiment to test this. After four weeks of acclimatisation to the regime, this is the sleep pattern his subjects showed:

  1. Lie awake in bed for two hours.
  2. Sleep for four.
  3. Awake again for two to three hours of quiet rest and reflection.
  4. Fall back asleep for four more hours.
  5. Wake for good.

The question now is: why would we want to do this? Who’s got fourteen hours to waste on sleep?

The Power of Dreams and Meditation

That middle segment of wakefulness is not just sitting around in bed. It is characterised by an altered state of consciousness, neither awake nor asleep, where confused thoughts wander at will, like dreams, and people feel content. This brain-state is very similar to the state reported by people who meditate regularly.

That period of “meditation” allows the sleeper to examine their dreams without the pressures of the day to worry about. How many people these days lounge around in bed, pondering their dreams – if they can remember them at all? No, most people have to get up and go to work, which breaks the spell.

But dreams and quiet meditation are powerful tools. Half-controlled, half-random, dreams offer easy access to suppressed emotions and unexpected thoughts. We can visit old friends, talk to dead relatives, travel in foreign lands, have new experiences and remember old ones.

This period of quiet meditation allows new thoughts to come to the surface, it allows our minds to shuffle through the events of the previous day and to put everything into perspective. “I’ll sleep on it,” is a common saying that reflects this.

The night-time also has a reputation as the “mother of thoughts”. Many artists and creative thinkers report that dreams or sleep in general is the best time for generating new ideas. With a double shift sleep pattern, dreaming, waking and meditation is built in to the system. Twice over.

A Experiment in Double Shift Sleep Patterns

So I tried it (of course). I know that Dr Wehr’s subjects needed four weeks to get into this pattern, but that didn’t stop me trying. The idea that our sleep is supposed to be broken also takes the pressure off. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s no bad thing. It’s natural.

So last night I tried it. I went to bed at about half eight in the evening and didn’t get out of bed until about nine in the morning. A good solid twelve hours of rest.

And I did sleep in two shifts. The first was until about three in the morning. Then I simply lay in bed (after checking the cricket score…) pondering the dreams I’d just had. Then I fell asleep again after a while and woke at about half past eight. I then stayed in bed just thinking about the night’s dreaming and got out of bed at nine.

I won’t bore you with my dreams, but suffice to say that I remember them still, twelve hours later. They were dramatic and exciting and perhaps even revealing. I’m going to try again tonight.

Conclusion

On average, we spend 10% of our lives dreaming between 100,000 and 200,000 dreams. That’s an awful lot. I can’t remember too many. One reason for that is that I sleep through too many of them. If I start sleeping in two shifts, like my ancestors used to, then I’ll remember way more. I really appreciate my dreams and the alternate reality that they allow me. Maybe I’ll understand them better, maybe I’ll understand myself better. Maybe I’ll just get a few more stories out of it.

“Let the Night teach us what we are, and the Day what we should be.”

Thomas Tryon, Wisdom’s Dictates (London, 1691)

References

Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles by A. Roger Ekirch:
http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.2/ah000343.html

Modern Life Suppresses An Ancient Body Rhythm By Natalie Angier, March 14, 1995:
http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/14/science/modern-life-suppresses-an-ancient-body-rhythm.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

Various BBC reports on meditation:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1847442.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/410003.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7319043.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8363302.stm

200 Years of Conflict: A Very British Century 1910-2010

To celebrate the end of the year, I have been researching the history of the British at war in the last century, the living memory of my country.

  • According to my findings, in the last 100 years the British have been at war in every year bar 17. 
  • That’s 83 years of conflict
  • And in each of those 17 years of ‘peace’ we have been the occupying power in one or more countries. 
  • During those 100 years, we have been involved in at least 34 conflicts, lasting a total of around 200 years.

Here’s a list of those conflicts, divided by decade, with casualty estimates in brackets:

1910-1920

1914-1918 World War I (39 million dead)
1916-1916 Easter Rising (Ireland, 400 dead)
1918-1922 Russian Civil War
1919-1919 Third Anglo-Afghan War (3,000 dead)
1919-1921 Anglo-Irish War (2,000 dead)
1919-1923 Turkish War of Independence

1920-1930

1924-1935 Peace? Ongoing British occupation of Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and India, among others.

1930-1940

1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine (5,000 dead)
1937-1945 The Pacific War
1938-1948 British-Zionist Conflict (Palestine, at least 1,000 dead)
1939-1945 World War II (73 million dead)

1940-1950

1941-1941 Anglo-Iraqi War (600 dead)
1941-1949 Greek Civil War (16,000 dead)
1948-1960 Malayan Emergency (10,000 dead)

1950-1960

1950-1953 Korean War (2.3 million dead)
1952-1960 Mau Mau Uprising (Kenya, 14,000 dead)
1955-1959 Cyprus Emergency (400 dead)
1956-1957 Suez Crisis (3,000 dead)
1958-1958 First Cod War (Iceland)

1960-1970

1961-1961 Peace? Kuwait and Tanganyika win their independence from British rule.
1962-1962 Brunei Revolt
1962-1966 Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation (800 dead)
1962-1975 Dhofar Rebellion (Oman)
1963-1967 Aden Emergency (Yemen)
1968-1998 Northern Ireland Troubles (3,500 dead)

1970-1980

1972-1973 Second Cod War (Iceland)
1975-1976 Third Cod War (Iceland)

1980-1990

1982-1982 Falklands War (Argentina, 1,000 dead)

1990-2000

1990-1991 First Gulf War (Iraq, at least 25,000 dead)
1995-1996 Bosnian War (100,000 dead)
1998-1998 Operation Desert Fox (Iraq, at least 600 dead)
1998-1999 Kosovo War (Yugoslavia, 10,000 dead)

2000-2010

2000-2002 Sierra Leone Civil War
2001-???? Global War on Terror
2001-???? Afghanistan War (50,000 dead and counting)
2003-2009 Iraq War and Iraqi Insurgency (at least 60,000 dead)

I am certain that I have excluded many conflicts that you may consider suitable for this list. I have been unable to source a list of British combat casualties for the last 100 years myself, but John Pilger, a journalist and documentary film-maker, reports that 16,000 British service men and women have died in action since 1948.

That is quite remarkable for a country that has not been under any military threat in the sixty-five years since the end of World War II.

I hope that this information has the effect on others that it had on me: shock and awe. How dare I hope to live in a civilised society, when that society is so intimate with war and slaughter?

Norman Finkelstein on Gaza and Israel’s Sinister Conspiracy

“I’m no prophet…” says Norman Finkelstein, slayer of myths and self-hating Jew, before proceeding to unveil a monumental international conspiracy: the impending Israeli invasion of Lebanon, due, according to Finkelstein’s crystal ball, in the next 12-18 months.

It was interesting hearing this Rottweiler of verifiable fact and reason succumb to the seductions of speculation. but Finkelstein said that this plot was sufficiently serious to risk his being wrong for the sake of doing something, rather than staying silent and watching it tragically unfold.

The aim of Israel’s plot, according to Finkelstein, is simple: the decapitation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, the real purpose of the conspiracy is slightly more involved (and sinister).

The following article is a review of a lecture Norman Finkelstein gave at Imperial College London on Friday 29 November. It presents the argument he gave there, rather than my personal views. 

I have supplemented the lecture, where necessary, with additional material and links to external sources. It’s pretty long, about 3000 words – but I promise it’s worth it!

Why does Israel need a Sinister Plot?

Okay, okay, not a plot, not a conspiracy – call it a ‘behind-the-scenes coordination’ if you don’t like those words. But remember, international political conspiracies of this order do happen.

In 1956, Britain, France and Israel conspired in just such a manner against Nasserite Egypt in order to regain control of the Suez Canal. The plot was only uncovered because it was unsuccessful: US President Eisenhower gleefully catching the two old colonial powers with their pants down and administering a slap with his New World Order cane.

Israel needs this ‘behind-the-scenes coordination’ to restore her ‘deterrent capacity’. What does this mean? It is a fabulous military euphemism for ‘Arab fear of Israel’.

The last ten years have seen a succession of Israeli military defeats and humiliation: the Arabs are getting uppity; they must be slapped down.

A Brief History of Israeli Humiliations

May 2000: The Israeli funded South Lebanon Army is finally defeated by Hezbollah. Israel withdraw to their side of the UN designated border.

January 2006: Hamas win the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, much to the displeasure of Israel and the West. Incidentally, this is the first time ever that an Arab government has been democratically voted out of office and a new government democratically voted in.

July 2006: Israel invades Lebanon. This operation can only be classed as a military defeat for Israel – or at best a Pyrrhic victory. They invaded in order to disarm Hezbollah and they failed in this objective. Their only morsel of success was that the threat of another invasion was a sufficient deterrent to prevent Hezbollah from intervening in Gaza in 2008/2009.

The result of these reverses was that Israel still had not restored her ‘deterrent capacity’ within the Arab world. And so they turned their weapons on their favourite shooting gallery: Gaza. Surely here they would be able to score a resounding military victory?

The Myth of the “Gaza War”

Following the victory of Hamas in the PLC elections, the US, Israel and various dissident Palestinian factions attempted a coup, successful only in wresting control from Hamas in the West Bank. This coup failed in Gaza because elections do mean something: a mass of the populace supported Hamas.

In a fit of pique, Israel tightened the blockade, hoping to starve them out. This didn’t work either. Unfortunately, in June 2008, Israel and Hamas had agreed a ceasefire, so Israel needed a pretext to mete out the punishment these democrats so richly deserved.

On 4 November 2008, a quiet day in the news – oh, aside from it being the day of the most compelling US Presidential election since JFK-Nixon – the ceasefire was broken by Israel, trundling bulldozers 250 metres into Gaza and killing six Palestinians in a bizarre tunnel offensive.

This, of course, provoked a response from Hamas and, sure enough, the rockets were fired and Israel had their pretext to invade.

And so, on the 27 December, the 22-day ‘Gaza War’ was launched and Israel had their triumphant ‘victory’.

But what kind of a war was this?

  • What kind of a war is it where not a single battle is fought?
  • What kind of a war is it when the supposed enemy sit tight in their bunkers until it’s all over?
  • What kind of a war is it when you launch (over) 2300 air-strikes and return with no planes even slightly damaged?
  • What kind of a war is it when you attack at night, rendering yourself totally invisible to the enemy because they don’t have your fancy night-vision goggles?
  • What kind of a war is it when the casualties are 100:1 in your favour?

Luckily, this isn’t just here-say or Hamas propaganda. We have evidence given by Israeli soldiers as well, recorded in the ‘Breaking the Silence’ testimony. You can browse this testimony at your leisure and make your own mind up.

Insanity?

As a side-entertainment, Finkelstein urged us to search for the word ‘insane’ on the ‘Breaking the Silence’ website. Here’s that search.

And if you can’t be bothered looking for yourself, here are a selection of ‘insanities’:

“We are hitting innocents and our artillery fire there was insane.”

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window.”

“After the man-search they conducted a weapons search and suddenly saw a little 3-year old kid lying terrified under a bed and let her go. What insane luck he had, not getting killed.”

“This was the general attitude in the army: Go in with insane fire power because this is our only advantage over them.”

“There is a majority of voters who are so desperate or agitated because of the situation, that they are willing to elect him, and thus to grant legitimacy to his insane views.” [Talking about the election of Ariel Sharon.]

“He said we were going to exercise insane fire power with artillery and air force. We were given the feeling that we were not just being sent out there, but with enormous security and cover. He did restrain it and say, ‘It’s not that you’re out to carry out a massacre, but…’

“Sometimes the border-police battalion commander – who was a complete lunatic. He was insane. He would tell me: ‘shoot here, shoot here, shoot here.’ And I shoot in all directions, without regard to anything.”

These quotations have a somewhat similar scatter-gun effect, but they give you a broad idea of the disproportionate nature of the assault.

So was it a massacre?

There are no internationally agreed standards on the definition of war or otherwise, but Finkelstein’s conclusion is unequivocal:

“This wasn’t a war; it was a massacre.”

Furthermore, he adds that:

“Anyone who says it was a war in Gaza is – intentionally or not – an instrument of the Israeli government.”

The high number of civilian deaths (762-926 by NGO estimates, 55-65% of the total) are often explained by the ‘human shields’ excuse: the Israelis couldn’t avoid civilian casualties because of the unethical fighting techniques used by Hamas.

The truth about human shields in Gaza

Unfortunately for this convenient line of argument, Amnesty International, the world’s most respected human rights organisation (I think), found no evidence that Hamas used human shields, although, interestingly, they did find evidence that Israel did.

“[Amnesty International] found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.

By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields’.

This is from page 75 of the report.

Just to be clear, Amnesty International considers both sides of the conflict to be consistent violators of human rights.

An assault on civilians, not a military war

It is also interesting to note that, during this so-called ‘war’, Israel found the time to destroy the only flour mill in Gaza and twenty-two out of the twenty-nine cement factories in Gaza.

That was a real pity because the Israelis also left behind 650,000 tonnes of rubble. It’s almost as if they wanted, not to knock out the threat of mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza, but to raze the land to the ground and leave the people no chance to rebuild their homes.

Re-writing history

Far from being a heroic military victory to crow about, the history of this event is already being effaced. It was too one-sided, too easy a victory and the world noticed. Now the Israeli government would like us to remember that nothing at all happened in Gaza in 2008/2009.

Just recently, on the 20 November 2010, the New York Times had this to say: “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been largely drained of deadly violence in the past few years.”

The newspaper did later publish a correction and amended the original article, saying that they meant to refer only to violence in the West Bank, but they still insist that: “the dispute is calmer than it has been in years.”

The battle for ‘humanitarian crisis’ status in Gaza

As this newspaper article might suggest, the international response to Gaza was rather phlegmatic. The blockade, let us remember, was and still is illegal. It is a form of collective punishment, a war crime under article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention. This diagnosis was supported by the UN Human Rights Council, who called the blockade an illegal action.

Furthermore, it had precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as reported by Oxfam and other relief agencies in March 2008, before the Israeli invasion.

There followed, in 2010, a bizarre argument between Oxfam and the Israeli government about the level of ‘crisis’, with supporters of Israel triumphantly producing a restaurant menu from Gaza that boasts steak au poivre and chicken cordon bleu. As if this would somehow ameliorate the destruction of the year before.

The Mavi Marmara Incident

And so on to the Gaza flotilla raid of 31 May. According to the Israeli’s own admission, they were not expecting any resistance. And rightfully so, I would agree. This was a flotilla of peaceniks and humanitarian hippies, was it not?

  • But why then, Israel, did you board the ship in the dead of night, at 4:30a.m. if you weren’t expecting resistance? 
  • Why did you use tear-gas if you weren’t expecting resistance? 
  • And if you were expecting resistance, then why not simply disable the engine, or physically block the boat from reaching the port?

The only logical answer is that Israel wanted a bloody conflict, perhaps not of the order that saw seven Israeli commandos injured, but still. A bloody conflict would, perhaps, rally Israel’s allies to her side against these flotilla-terrorists.

Unfortunately, the Mavi Marmara incident became a national humiliation. The commandos botched the raid: they were supposed to look like the elite force that Israel considered them. Instead three commandos were captured by an enemy armed with iron bars and the raid turned into a bloodbath.

This failure, combined with the public exposure and diplomatic crisis of the Mossad assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in January 2010 in Dubai, embarrassed Israel in the full glare of the international media and stung their national pride.

Or as one Israeli general put it:

“It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

The Sinister Plot

And so, after all this, the Israelis still need to restore their ‘deterrence capacity’ – and these reverses mean that this time it must succeed and, furthermore, it’s got to be more spectacular than ever.

Thus the need for our grand international conspiracy:

Hezbollah must be decapitated and Lebanon shall be invaded in the next 12-18 months.

This isn’t just idle extrapolation by one half-cocked anti-Zionist. There is some recent concrete evidence to support the hypothesis.

On November 8, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the UN that Israel were going to withdraw from the Northern (Lebanese) half of Ghajar, a village on the border between Lebanon and the (Syrian) Golan Heights, which are currently occupied by Israel.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations got very excited and called this action an ‘important step towards the full implementation of Security Council resolution 1701’.

Why does Finkelstein find this so ominous? It sounds positively docile, doesn’t it? Well, not quite.

This action concludes Israel’s obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The onus is now on the Lebanese government. But they have a slightly more arduous task: they must disarm Hezbollah.

This condition is going to be nigh-on impossible for the Lebanese government to fulfil and, when they fail, Israel will have the perfect pretext for invasion, blessed by the UN.

The Turning of the Screw

What follows, Finkelstein says, is speculation, but it is all too believable. Luckily for us it is easily monitored because it will all take place in the public eye.

First the UN Security Council will soften the target for Israel by creating disunity in Lebanon. They will start to put pressure on Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah according to Resolution 1701. They’ll threaten sanctions and embargoes when Lebanon can’t and don’t comply, raising international ire against this ‘rogue state’.

Secondly the media will start to point the finger at Hezbollah. Ever heard of Rafic Hariri? No, nor had I. But soon, everyone will. The CBC TV channel in Canada are launching a three-part special on ‘Who Killed Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri?’ They conclude, naturally, that it was a Hezbollah political assassination, rather than an Israeli-inspired one.

There is a BBC special in the making as well, all leading up to the first UN International Independent Investigation Commission indictments for his murder in March 2011.

Oh – who was he? He was Lebanon’s Prime Minister until 2004. He was assassinated in 2005. These media stories, as well as pointing the finger at Hezbollah and fuelling international hysteria for an Israeli invasion, will also stoke Sunni-Shia tensions within Lebanon, further weakening the target.

Why Bother with the Conspiracy?

But why bother with this great international conspiracy? Why not just invade and be done with it?

The answer to this is simple: to keep Iran out of the conflict. Israel needs the support of the UN so that the only combatants are Hezbollah and themselves. The only reason that Iran did not intervene in 2006 was because they didn’t need to: Israel was defeated.

This time Israel refuses to be defeated; therefore Iran will be compelled to enter the conflict. Thus Israel needs the support of possible UN sanctions to keep Iran in line.

Unfortunately for Israel, after the Mavi Marmara incident, it is not entirely clear if Turkey will also play along with the sinister plot. It is essential that they do to keep the ‘integrity’ of the plan intact, and thus Israel will attempt to draw their sting. By paying them off probably.

Once the ground is prepared, once the target is softened up, once Iran and Turkey are neutralised by the UN, a pretext for invasion will be found. It is not hard to imagine possible scenarios.

Israeli newspapers are already suggesting that Hezbollah might launch a coup in Lebanon. The source of this idea? ‘Secret intelligence’ – just like the ‘secret intelligence’ that led to the Israeli assault on Egypt in 1967.

The Invasion

When the invasion happens, Finkelstein even knows what it will look like. He knows because we’ve been told.

It’s something called the ‘Dahiya doctrine’.

This sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but in fact means the total pulverisation of civilian areas. In 2008, IDF Northern Command Chief Gadi Eisenkot elucidated:

“What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there.

From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”

Unlike the war in 2006, this time Hezbollah missiles will be able to reach Tel Aviv. But Finkelstein argues that Israel is not too bothered about home casualties: they will only add to the perceived legitimacy of their case for war.

Is there a Way Out?

Finkelstein wasn’t just here to feed our love for sinister international conspiracies. He urged us to find a way out of the current impasse in the Middle East.

He sites the example of the Mavi Marmara again. While it didn’t succeed in breaking the blockade, it did at least sting the world into denouncing the blockade – after 3 years of almost total silence.

This shows the power of you and I to change world opinion. The Mavi Marmara was not a delegation from a government or an international human rights organisation or a bunch of lawyers from The Hague. It was a motley crew of human rights activists, like you and I.

Opinion, Finkelstein reckons, is changing. The mainstream is starting to take notice of the injustice of the Palestinian situation.

To conclude his lecture, Finkelstein offers us two platforms on which we can all stand to support the Palestinian case.

1. Stick to the Principles

The Palestinians, like everyone on the planet, have rights under international law. There is no need to forfeit any of them in the name of negotiation.

These rights are:

  1. For their own state in a united West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem.
  2. For the complete removal of the illegal Israeli settlements on this land.
  3. For refugees to be allowed their right of return and their due compensation.

2. But be Reasonable

It is paramount that we show Israel and the mainstream of public opinion that there is a way out, that we don’t have to be talking about this conflict for ever more.

At the moment, Israel is fighting like a dog with nowhere to run. We need to give her an option that allows her to withdraw with dignity and safety.

Norman Finkelstein ends his lecture with an optimistic quote, passed on to him by Edward Said, the sadly departed post-colonialist scholar and acute advocate for Palestinian rights. It was a quote from the poet Aimè Cèsaire:

“There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.”

Slave for Hire

I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.

In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.

Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.

But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?

This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.

I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.

Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.

Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.

Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.

It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.

I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.

17th of April: The Windmill, Brixton

I shall be giving a 5 minute lecture on:

‘A Fantastical History of Thee Bicycle’

At the Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences album launch, ‘Apologies to the Enlightenment’. Look ee here for more interestingness on that fine band: http://www.silenceisawkward.com/

This shall take place at The Windmill, Brixton, London on Saturday, April 17th from 6pm. See here for knowledge about the venue: http://www.windmillbrixton.co.uk/

The show, besides me and Thee Awkward Silences, also features more lecturers (A Radical History of Britain among others), more bands (David Cronenberg’s Wife, Tim Ten Yen, Extradition Order, Steven Evens, Superman Revenge Squad), DJs and a barbecue.

Unmissable.

Don’t Feed the Human

It is now illegal to give food to scruffy looking types in two US cities: Las Vegas and Orlando.

Two new ordinances in these cities, passed on the 20th of July in Las Vegas and the 26th of July in Orlando, mean that people on government support cannot eat in a public place for free or a negligible fee. The punishment? Well the recipient stays hungry and homeless (unless he or she can be squeezed into the local jailhouse) and the feeder could get $1000 fine and six months in prison. Now that’s an expensive sandwich by anyone’s standards (although some City delis come pretty close).

But how will this be enforced? How on earth can Marshals know who is on government support when they come across a suspect sandwich transaction? Well luckily the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has the answer: “Certain truths are self-evident. You know who’s homeless.”

Now he mentions it, I guess they do look a bit different to us don’t they? Skinny, drawn, probably with a beer can in hand and eyes bulging as a result of some kind of substance misuse. Clothes a bit ripped and messed up; hair unkempt and certainly unshaven. And then there’s the smell of course: a vile cocktail of human excrement and alcohol.

Quite apart from the difficulties of policing this new law, just imagine the bourgeois nightmare: you’re just sitting down with Timmy, Gemima and Clarence the dog for your delightful picnic in the park after a splendid morning feeding the ducks (legal). As you unpack the smashing sandwiches that cook prepared from the rems of last night’s charming soiree a down-at-heel type approaches you (note: he has not shaved recently – beware!). You signal calmly to the children who have retreated to cower behind you; brave Clarence sniffs disdainfully. The man (who, you quickly realise, is not wearing the latest style at ALL) removes his beaten cap and asks if he could possibly have a sandwich. What on earth do you DO? Give him a sandwich and risk criminal proceedings (heaven alone knows: he could be an undercover Park Attendant!), or refuse the sandwich and almost certainly risk losing the kids in a brutal daylight kidnapping?

The implications are wide-reaching: there was a famous summer during my schooldays in Reading when both Doritos and Tango were promoting new products simultaneously. They would generously hand out packets of crisps and bottles of drink to all comers in Reading station. It was beautiful: the perfect way to end the day, relaxed, feet up, on the train home with 14 packs of Doritos and a six bottles of Tango Still (it took a lot of nerve and a large bag to pull off, but it was certainly possible). But now, in the light of this legislation, presumably the promotion would only be open to those who could produce a gas bill or some other proof of address. This provokes the troubling thought: would they have accepted one in my Dad’s name?

Allen Lichtenstein, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney puts it another way: “So the only people who get to eat are those who have enough money? Those who get (government) assistance can’t eat at your picnic?” Surely this is madness!

Luckily, Las Vegas councilman Steve Wolfson raised this exact point with the city attorney Brad Jerbic. Wolfson was understandably worried that a hypothetical kind-hearted individual would be prevented from giving some homeless guy a hypothetical bite to eat. Jerbic clarified the matter for him: “If you bought a couple of burgers and wanted to give them out, you technically would be in violation, but you wouldn’t be cited.” Great! The Las Vegas ordinance was passed unanimously.

I guess they’re just after the big boys then; the people who go out and just hand out burgers to ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, no, maybe five thousand hungry people!

This certainly appears to be the case with Orlando’s apparently less extreme ordinance. The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit. The reason given (according to WFTV) was that “transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses”. Well, of course, the smelly buggers, coming here with their wee and poo and beards – yuk! Banish them! Two miles should do it… No wonder that negotiations between the city council and the American Civil Liberties Union ended badly due to a suspicion of bad faith.

***

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some kind of crazy US social fuckup; remember that what happens over there will happen over here sooner or later. Sorry, that is a terrible generalisation and a frankly exhausted tabloid cliché: ignore me – but just ponder the following:

A couple of weeks ago Westminster City Council criticised soup kitchens: “We appreciate they are trying to help but all they are doing is helping to sustain people on the streets.” The BBC reported that “a spokesman for Westminster City Council said soup runs fail to reduce the number of homeless people and can disturb residents in surrounding areas.” This seems to echo the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude expressed by the city councils of Las Vegas and Orlando.

With withering simplicity, Mr Samson, director of Shelter, pointed out “It is not lack of soup that causes homelessness”. Wise words.

***

The French, meanwhile, have been busy closing down soup kitchens for other reasons.

Soup kitchens run by right wing groups, serving soup somewhat provocatively made with smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, pigs’ tails and sausages, were targeted by French authorities last February. This was in response to the growing alienation felt by Muslim groups in France and during a period when the whole of Europe seemed to be in the grip of cartoon-related civil unrest.

The kindly matron of one such soup kitchen in Paris made the point, however, that “Other communities don’t hesitate to help their own, so why can’t we?” – shortly before climbing on top of a car and screaming, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!”

And it is true that Islamic and Jewish charities dole out (shock!) halal and kosher food respectively. But it wouldn’t be too hard to argue that these special diet kitchens don’t actually exclude certain social groups. It’s hard to say the same about a soup kitchen who baldly state: “The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork.”

***

It is easy for me; I could happily live a life in which food was not an issue of great social and political importance, but every now and again something nudges me awake.

The Man on the Train

The man on the train leans forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is okay? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
‘I have’

He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish.

He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’ I ask.
‘No, Hayes,’ he replies. ‘I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘London-On-Sea.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the, um… forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.

Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging.

Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. I’m out of ideas.

‘Where are you from?’ I ask.
He replies: ‘Lebanon.’

The smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently.

Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out.

‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguring to register Concern.
‘… Gosh.’
‘Yeah. It is bad.’

At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.

‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
‘Your family?’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’

He looks pained: ‘No electric, no water – it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’

I look down at my bottle of water.

‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses.

‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people.

‘I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody.

‘Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retinas burn when I meet his look.

‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want.

‘Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us?

‘How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London.’

He realises this doesn’t capture the scale. ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘Malta.’

‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down. ‘… A clear view.’

‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns. They are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘Bombed?’
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘without the body.’

‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘smaller than, smaller than…’ He leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure.
‘Smaller than… a football.’

‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them… Anyway that was in World War.’ He brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm.

‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die.

‘If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’

He cuts me off: ‘Well they must do something. They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

‘I must get off here,’ he says. ‘It’s been nice talking to you.’

I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship.
‘I hope your family are alright.’
‘It is life, my friend.’

He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

I wish I’d asked his name.


This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.

The 2006 Lebanon War is believed to have killed between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis.

It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.